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Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger and his nine-year-old son, Matthew, first noticed the fossils in the unexplored Malapa caves near Johannesburg in March 2008, while exploring Google Earth. Dr Berger was using the technology to map the 130 or so caves and 20 fossil deposits he and his colleagues had already identified over the past decades, but he soon began using it to locate new fossil deposits by learning to identify what cave sites looked like in satellite images.
With the help of the navigation facility and high-resolution satellite imagery, Dr Berger went on to uncover almost 500 previously unidentified caves and fossil sites and it was one of these that led to the discovery of Australopithecus sediba – a species of hominins that existed about two million years ago.
Specifically, 130 bones comprising two skeletons of a juvenile male and an adult female were found in the remains of a deeply eroded cave system preserved in a hard, concrete-like substance known as “calcified clastic sediment”.
Dr Berger shared his discovery in the Science journal, stating in 2008: “I believe that this is a good candidate for being the transitional species between the southern African ape-man Australopithecus africanus – like the Taung Child and Mrs Ples – and either Homo habilis or even a direct ancestor of Homo erectus, like Turkana Boy, Java man or Peking man.
The species appears to have had long arms, like an ape, short powerful hands and long legs capable of striding and possibly running like a human.
Dr Berger added: “The brain size of the juvenile was between 420 and 450 cubic centimetres, which is small when compared to the human brain of about 1200 to 1600 cubic centimetres, but the shape of the brain seems to be more advanced than that of australopithecines.”
The bones hint at features present in both the modern Homo and previously-discovered Australopithecines.
Also nearby were the articulated skeletons of a sabre-toothed cat, antelope, mice and rabbits.
Scientists around-the-world hailed the find as a significant in understanding the evolution of humans.
Richard Potts, director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History said the discovery was huge for understanding more about the evolution of humans.
He told TechNewsWorld in 2008: “It’s always an important discovery when you find pieces of the same skeleton in the human fossil record, so the announcement of two such fossil individuals is compelling news.
“The fossils come from a time period that is well-known, in East Africa, for several contemporaneous lineages of early human species.
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“It shows that there is even more diversity in our evolutionary tree to discover.
“These new fossils display a previously unknown combination of features – an overall body shape of Australopithecus, yet some features reminiscent of the genus Homo.
“The researchers connect their discoveries to one of the big issues in the study of human origins, the origin of the genus Homo.”
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